I wanted a guitar ever since I was a little kid. When I was twelve my mother scraped and saved and then went to the OTASCO (Oklahoma Tire and Supply Company) in Bristow Oklahoma and bought one for my Christmas.
It was a beginner’s guitar, a three-quarters size generic guitar – no fancy Martin or Gibson, just a little guitar that was a perfect size and fit for both me and my mother’s budget. I loved that thing and gamely tried to teach myself to play. When my sister Annie came home from college, she brought her guitar and taught me some chords. We did duets and got our sisters to sing along with us. It was a rare time for me to be included in an activity with them, and it only enhanced my love of playing. It is one of my fondest memories.
By the time I got into high school, all my sisters had graduated ahead of me and were either in college or out in the work world. By then I was making up my own songs and playing every day. When faced with Freshman English class and a dreadful subject – Edgar Allen Poe, whose morose depressing work I absolutely HATE to this day – I fought back with the only weapon I had on hand: my three-quarter sized six-stringed friend. Everyone in class was to memorize “Annabelle Lee” so I put a tune to it and brought my guitar to class.
The performance was met with enthusiasm. Our school music program had been completely cut out of the curriculum, so everyone was happy to hear a tune. My classmates were astonished that I even knew how to play a guitar, much less sing. It gave my teacher inspiration to try to rope in other classes to enjoy poetry (even moody, depressing, funktastic Edgar Allen Poe.) She entreated me to sing again for another class later that day, and so it began. I ended up playing for both Freshman classes of English, plus the Sophomore, Junior and Senior classes.
Boy, if I wasn’t tired of Edgar Allen freakin’ Poe by then!
Every year the 4-H organization held a talent competition. I knew this since the kids in the house down the road from mine put together a band several years earlier, and every day the entire neighborhood listened to “G-L-O-R-I-A” as it roared out over amplifiers. Well, I was an acoustic act so noise wouldn’t be a problem. I stayed tucked away, strumming quietly so as not to disturb the peace. Mama finally came to my room and asked, “aren’t you going to practice — oh good! I didn’t realize you were even playing.”
“I didn’t want to bother you.”
“No bother! Come on out here where I can hear you; I like to hear you.”
So I sat in the dining room and played “One Tin Soldier,” the song I was rehearsing, and then various songs she liked. I had built quite a repertoire by then so she had “her own little jukebox on the premises.” That is another fond memory of mine: performing for my mom. She was happy puttering around in the kitchen as I played.
I entered the contest and found myself up against a Christian duet, a jazz-dance act and a couple of other acts. The jazz-dance act and I were chosen to represent the school. I went on to represent the county, the district, and then I went to the big state competition that summer at the big State 4-H Convention. It was the first time I had ever been away from home for more than a day by myself. There on a college campus, with hundreds of other kids (the talent competition was just one factor in the state meet) I made dozens of friends I would never have met otherwise, played duets with another guitar player for our fellow conventioneers on our dorm floor, and had the best time. I did not win state but I did not mind. It was a blast just to participate.
The next year at school, I had to repeat “Annabelle Lee” for incoming Freshmen. I also got some respect from my classmates – I won the “Most Talented” of our Class Excelsior page in the yearbook, alongside my male counterpart whose talent was playing basketball. I bought a second-hand twelve-string guitar with a high bridge action which was tough to play, but the sound was great. I entered the 4-H contest again – went back to county, district, and state competition too. Re-connected with the friends I had made the year before and had another blast of a time. Got another “Most Talented” nod in the yearbook as a Sophomore with Lawrence the Ballplayer.
By Junior year I was in full roar more Annabelle Lee (REALLY hated EAP by then) brought my guitar to school because who knew when someone might need a song, right? I didn’t get obnoxious with it, so the principal let me quietly play in the lobby during my study hall hour (back then we had things like “study hall” and “grade school recess” and “allowing the school nutter to bring a guitar to school because who knew et cetera?” Small schools of under a hundred students in the entire high school are wonderful for these exceptions.) Mama and I got an electric guitar and a small amplifier. It wasn’t as enjoyable to play as I thought it might be. As Jimmy Buffett said, “I guess I was never meant for glitter rock-and-roll” because it largely collected dust until I finally sold it years later. I didn’t make it back to the 4-H state competition which was disappointing but I understood.
Lawrence and I did a three-peat as the Junior Class “Most Talented” only this time the class also included another guitarist. Brian was a really talented musician but his talent was outmatched by his antisocial, up-the-Establishment attitude and overall sour disposition. Ah, but as Chuck Berry sang, “he could play a guitar like ringing a bell.”
Senior year we actually got music back in the school again, so I learned to play cornet in the school band, and joined chorus class. I still played guitar, still played in study hall, still played Anna-freakin’-belle Lee for English class, kept writing songs and worked with a couple of brothers and their girlfriends in a band for 4-H competition. We sounded good but did not win the county competition because just before we went onstage, the lead guitarist lit up a ciggie to calm his nerves, and without thinking and out of habit, tucked the smoking butt up behind the take-up strings on the head of the guitar, and walked out on stage to perform.
4-H was too wholesome to allow something as egregious as “cigarette smoking guitarists” represent their club, so we were out. He felt bad about it but we sounded good; we knew we would have done fine. His brother the drummer was philosophical. “Can you imagine us in a campus dorm room for three days? They’re probably afraid we’ll go heavy-metal on ’em and wreck the place.”
I got my fourth consecutive “Most Talented” with Lawrence. Brian had moved or dropped out or something; I do not recall. I added a fourth letterman’s hash to my letter sweater.
I played guitar in college, and could write pages and pages of my adventures at the Hank Thompson School of Country Music, but I won’t. Yes, it was a real thing at Claremore Junior College (now all fancy-pants as “Rogers State University.” ooOOOooh!) I also played a little at university, and for years after that I occasionally played and sang for church and for fun. Most of those years were spent raising kids and writing novels and living life, so the guitars took a back seat. My kids were not particularly interested in learning to play one back then. Two learned saxophone and the other, percussion. I gave my original little three-quarter guitar to my big brother Joe and taught him to play. He kept the guitar until he passed away in 1999. My sister-in-law still has it, I think. I also still have the huge 12-string with the high bridge action, which makes it a nice decoration but has been really too impractical for anyone to play for over a decade.
Four years ago I got to sing and play “Christmastime in Texas” with the Carroll County Community Chorus along with a fiddle player and an upright bass player, as part of their Christmas concert. It was a great deal of fun, just like the good old days except nobody smoked backstage so there were no cigarette butts stuck behind strings. Aw gee, take all the fun out of things, why don’t we! I was a little nervous but the audience enjoyed it.
I acquired another little three-quarter size guitar but hadn’t touched it until this year when I returned to the Community Chorus after a brief hiatus. The chorus director mentioned “Christmastime” and asked if I’d like to audition with it or a similar song as a possible solo. Okay, I said. I went home, tuned up my guitar and strummed. It was then I felt my heart break in two.
You see, I have osteoarthritis and have had it ever since the age of twelve. My doctor then said keeping my fingers active would help keep them mobile. Guitars were easier to carry around that a piano at that time, so Mama got me a guitar. Did I mention I carried my guitar to school with one hand and walked with a cane in the other? No? Well, that’s what I did back then. It’s something that has just been a part of my life, something I’ve grown used to over the years. I have gone into ‘remission’ several times where for years I never needed a cane at all. I almost forgot that arthritis is ultimately a crippling disease until it comes roaring back to slow my steps and hinder my activity. My fingers have swollen and are becoming misshapen. In the past couple of years I’ve started really having a hard time with them. I used to be a cartoonist until I could no longer hold a pencil or ink pen long enough to draw the panel artwork or do the lettering. Never once did I ever imagine I would lose the ability to play a clear chord.
I didn’t realize how hard a time until the other night when I could only play half the chords of the song without yelping in pain. One chord I cannot play at all, for it requires my middle finger to bend, pull back and press down on a string that the finger simply will no longer do. I cannot close my hands into fists either. I can type, obviously. My hands can rock a keyboard. I shudder to think what would happen if I ever lost that skill; read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe I suppose.
And so it sits in the corner, a little three-quarter sized guitar similar to the first one I had, waiting for the day I might pick it up and play again the way I used to, the day that will never come.